BUKIT MERTAJAM (Aug 27, 2008) By Himanshu Bhatt
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had chosen a busy Sunday morning to make his campaign round for Barisan Nasional (BN) at the packed Seberang Jaya market in Permatang Pauh, only to find that his bitter foe Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was also arriving there.
The BN deputy chairman took a nippy walk around the premise and was about to reach his car when a din was heard. Anwar had arrived at an entrance further down the road.
Najib stopped. There was a pregnant pause as his security personnel stood still, holding his car door open, while he stayed rooted; his gaze fixed on the PKR crowd with flags and banners mobbing Anwar in the distance. It took a good moment before he slowly turned and got into his car.
It was a defining image of the Permatang Pauh parliamentary by-election.
For during the entire course of the scorching 10-day campaign, Anwar had seemed unstoppable - not just for the sheer enormity of his following, but also for the flowing reasoning he exhibited in his rhetoric.
From dealing with sodomy allegations against him to deflecting accusations he would jeopardise Malay special status, from eliciting sympathy for the mainstream media’s apparent bias towards him to igniting revulsion to perceived corruption in the government, Anwar maintained a crafty and compelling strategy.
Najib had appointed Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah, the local assemblyman for Seberang Jaya, as the BN candidate to stop Anwar from making a return to Parliament. Arif may have been a local favourite, but his campaign was hardly as dramatic as Anwar’s.
Sportingly, he also avoided personal issues like the sodomy allegations on Anwar. Unfortunately for BN, its leaders harped on the matter, wanting to knock Malay-Muslim confidence away from Anwar.
The issue proved to be BN’s death knell in Permatang Pauh.
Anwar cleverly used the deep moral sensitivity of rural Malays to point to BN leaders as having cast "fitnah" (aspersions) on him.
He went through great lengths to describe the emotional pain he and his family had to endure from the profane nature of the allegations. And it moved the masses.
"They have beaten me, they have stripped me naked, they have robbed me of my dignity. But it’s alright. I shall get up and fight back again and again," he once said to a cheering crowd.
But the biggest, most decisive nail in the coffin must have the gripping appearance two days before polling of the imam who witnessed the swearing of Anwar’s accuser Saiful Bukhari Azlan.
Ramlang Porigi’s confession that he did not believe the swearing was legitimate, and that he had been ordered to be witness, was made in the presence of no less than Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the revered PAS spiritual leader.
It was a moral coup that disintegrated any remaining doubts most conservative folks would have had about the allegations.
Anwar was also consistent in explaining his agenda on race. He stressed a good deal - both to Malay and non-Malay crowds - that Malay special status (he never called it "ketuanan" or supremacy) would be maintained. But he was quick to add that the Chinese and Indians must also be properly cared for.
He had an oft-rehearsed refrain: "Anak Melayu anak saya, anak Cina anak saya, anak India anak saya." (The Malay child is my child, the Chinese child is my child, the Indian child is my child.)
It brought applause wherever it was uttered. Intriguingly, while multi-racial crowds roared with joy, audiences in the Malay heartland also reacted with approval.
In fact, he once touched on this very theme at a service road next to the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) campus. Only two days before, the campus had seen some 5,000 Malay students protesting a proposal to bring in non-Malay students.
But when Anwar spoke on ethnic harmony, the audience which included students from the UiTM hostel broke into an ovation.
Then there was his promise for openness in the media. He smartly deflected the stream of negative reporting about him by certain media agencies, to bring repugnance towards them and the controlling government.
Right from the beginning, PKR assumed a modus operandi to name these agencies and question their credibility. This was done frequently during rallies and through the party’s own publications distributed widely throughout the constituency.
Anwar was similarly well-rehearsed in deploring the country’s economic management, as well as the nepotism and bribery.
He spoke eloquently about the nation’s oil wealth and natural resources, about the lack of transparency, and how the ‘anaks’ and ‘menantus’ may be unduly reaping from the land.
In contrast, the BN leaders relied to a large degree on an attempt to build a fear of Anwar - that he was double-faced, that he was a trouble-maker, that he was immoral.
It hardly seemed to work. Already riding on widespread resentment towards the BN government’s social and economic policies, Anwar made sure he presented an agenda that appeared intelligent, humane and well-defined.
As it is, there was high passion among supporters and even common citizens that was flowing over to the brink of physical aggression. It may have led to the sporadic violence. There were rumours about rioting or even curfew on the eve of the election. But by and large, reason prevailed.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the election, it is in Anwar’s dexterous use of charisma and logic to move the people.
"We have a clear and consistent agenda," Anwar once said. "You can see for yourself. Wherever I speak, people who hear me understand who I am, what I plan to do… They put their trust in me."